In the opening moments of last week’s penultimate American Song Contest heat, three more acts joined Tennessee’s Tyler Braden (the jury winner of the third heat) in the competition’s semi-finals. They were:

  • Riker Lynch of Colorado
  • Ni/Co of Alabama
  • Grant Knoche of Texas

And, after another pack of up-and-coming artists performed, the jury had their say, sending Washington’s Allen Stone to the semi-finals. Watch his performance of “A Bit of Both” below:

Allen Stone

Three more acts will advance out of last week’s qualifying heat. Based on the jury scores, Massachusetts’ Jared Lee, Nevada’s The Crystal Method, and Pennsylvania’s Bri Steves would be the chosen few, but the full results will not be revealed until the beginning of tonight’s broadcast. But before Kelly and Snoop welcome viewers to the fifth week of the competition, prepare for tonight’s festivities with the final edition of American Song Contest 101, a primer on each state and territory’s music scene, as well as an introduction to the various artists who will be competing for the audience’s votes.

Disclaimer: This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive look at the entire breadth of music each state has produced. This is merely a small taste, a morsel of information to help non-US fans get acquainted with all 56 competing states and territories.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s kick it off with the 9 states (plus two territories) represented in tonight’s third qualifying round:

Population: 39.66 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Poland

Musical Heritage: Pop, folk, hip hop, rock, Chicano, R&B … basically everything

Notable Homegrown Talent: The Beach Boys, N.W.A., HAIM

California, and specifically Los Angeles, has been called ‘The Entertainment Capital of the World’, and it’s easy to see why. Hollywood is the epicenter of The US’ TV, film, and music industries, and you’ll find artists from just about any genre of music there, fighting for their time in the spotlight. Blues, folk, pop, rock, R&B, hip hop, Latin, dance, terrible singles made by TikTok celebrities … you name it, Los Angeles has got it. Largely a city of transplants, Los Angeles has still given birth to a number of incredibly popular and influential local acts over the years, including hip hop sextet N.W.A., the pioneering group that helped create and popularize gangsta rap around the world in the late 1980s.

(Top Row) Left to right: ICP BRE, Jen, Sami. (Bottom Row) The cover for ICP BRE’s 2018 track “Bang”; The artwork for Jen’s 2016 song “Love Me”, released under the name ‘J Grace’; Sami being crowned Miss Santa Monica USA 2019.

Latin girl group Sweet Taboo will be representing California at the American Song Contest with the song “Keys to the Kingdom”. All three ladies are Los Angeles natives, but they all arrived at this night through different paths. Sami, real name Samantha Ramos, was Miss Santa Monica Teen USA 2017 and, shortly before the formation of Sweet Taboo, was the reigning Miss Santa Monica USA 2019. Through her pageant success, she became a model and beauty influencer, and she has been featured on Sephora’s official YouTube channel. Jen, real name Jennifer Torrejon, attended a performing artist high school and released music under the pseudonym ‘J Grace’ in 2016. Two of her songs featured verses by Frankie J, a Latin pop singer and former member of the Tejano super group Kumbia Kings. (Kumbia Kings was created by Selena Quintanilla’s brother, Abraham.) ICP BRE, stands for ‘Ice Cold Pimp’ Bre, was an aspiring rapper and student at Los Angeles Film School before joining Sweet Taboo. So how did these three get together?

Sami and Jen shared a vocal coach and had become friendly over the years. They started working on music, but they quickly realized they wanted to integrate hip hop into their sound. They scoured Instagram, looking for female rappers that they thought would be a good fit. Eventually, they came across ICP BRE, DM’ed her, and the rest is herstory. Sweet Taboo has built a strong support team, including super producer Richard Vission and Grammy-winning audio mixer Manny Maroquin, and have been working on material. All three of Latin heritage, the ladies celebrate their culture by infusing Spanish into their pop tracks. They’ve also been outspoken about the female empowerment messages they hope to convey through their music. (Watch Sami, Jen, and ICP BRE strut their stuff in the music video for their most recent single, “Lil Bit”, below.)

During the pandemic, Sweet Taboo grew their audience through viral social media content. They began posting reimagined, Spanglish covers of hit pop and R&B songs. Their covers got noticed and reposted by a number of big names in the music industry, and they were even invited to perform a cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs” for the YouTube channel of the Grammys Recording Academy. (See below.) “Keys to the Kingdom” is only the third Sweet Taboo song to be released so far, but the trio are hard at work on their debut EP.

 

Population: 1.9 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Latvia

Musical Heritage: Country, jazz, indie rock

Notable Homegrown Talent: Judy Lynn, Curtis Stigers, Josh Ritter

Located at a crossroads between the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, Idaho’s music culture is a mini fusion of those two separate regions. Idaho’s capital and most populous city, Boise, is home to a tight knight, locally-focused music scene, and, since 2014, local indie acts have showcased their talents at the annual Treefort Music Fest. Additionally, there are a number of well-regarded annual jazz festivals held at the state’s universities. But no genres of music are more popular in Idaho than country and folk. The small community of Weiser has held an annual fiddling contest for over 100 years, and the artists you are most likely to hear played on the radio, especially in the more rural areas of Idaho, are country singers. One of the state’s most interesting country stars of the past was Judy Lynn, a former Miss Idaho who toured with the Grand Ole Opry and played her rhinestone cowgirl act in Las Vegas for over 20 years.

Screengrabs from one of Andrew’s old skateboarding videos.

Soulful country balladeer Andrew Sheppard will be repping for The Potato State at the American Song Contest, but he will probably be doing it wearing fewer rhinestones. (Who knows?) His entry is titled “Steady Machine”. Born in the small town of Hailey, Idaho, Andrew grew up as a lover of extreme sports. His hairdresser mother was always performing in rock and blues bands while he was growing up, but music was not Andrew‘s first love. He was a skateboarder. A good one, in fact. After graduating high school, he was signed to the skateboard demo team on the Van’s Warped Tour and moved to Los Angeles. He was well on his way to achieving his dreams, but that all came to an end after a serious knee injury, an injury that required surgery and, ultimately, ended his career.

While Andrew was recovering, he bought a cheap guitar and began teaching himself how to play. He had been a bass player in high school punk bands, but he had never been that serious about it. In 2007, he and a friend who he had moved to Los Angeles with recruited two more musicians and started a rockabilly band called Gypsy River Haunts. Andrew was the group’s lead vocalist. From 2008 to 2012, the band had some cult success, recording an EP and and a couple of albums. (Watch the music video for the band’s song “Come Easy Come Slow” below.)

Shortly after Gypsy River Haunts broke up, Andrew quit his day job, packed up his car, and went on an 8,000 mile road trip in search of inspiration. He eventually ended up back where it all started, his hometown in Idaho where he had first been introduced to rock and country music greats. He reconnected with old musician friends and, ultimately, began collaborating with them to tinker with the songs he had written on his road trip. Those songs would make up Andrew‘s first solo album, Far From Here, released in 2015. He stuck around Idaho, feeling inspired by the state’s mountainous landscape, and worked on new music. He performed local gigs. He toured the Midwest. He played a number of folk and country music festivals. In 2018, he decamped to Nashville to record his second (and most recent) album, Steady Your Aim. (Watch an acoustic performance of that album’s title track below.) Since then, he has continued to tour and perform and has released a handful of singles.

Read our interview with Andrew Sheppard here.

Population: 12.52 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Belgium

Musical Heritage: Electric blues, hip hop, house

Notable Homegrown Talent: Muddy Waters, Earth Wind & Fire, Kanye West

In the early 20th century, large communities of working class African Americans migrated out of the south and into industrial capitals like Chicago, currently the third most populous city in The US. Those communities brought Delta blues and New Orleans-style jazz traditions with them, and, over time, they evolved into more urban styles. Muddy Waters, an innovative singer-songwriter who moved to Chicago to pursue a singing career, was one of the pioneers of electric blues in the 1940s, introducing electric instruments and amplification into traditional blues orchestrations. Decades later, African American DJs in Chicago’s club scene would develop house music, an electronic dance genre popular in the city’s club scene in the 1980s. And although many rock and punk acts have sprung up over the years, hip hop has been the city’s dominant musical export over the last two decades, with some of the genre’s biggest names getting their start on the Chicago streets.

Justin, age 18, performing as the opening act for Corbin Bleu’s 2008 tour.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Jesso grew up in a suburb just outside of Chicago, and the city’s musicality no doubt had an effect on his artistic development. He will be performing the song “Lifeline” during tonight’s show. At 27, Justin has already led a long and illustrious career, full of ups and downs. Justin performed for the first time in front of an audience at a talent show when he was five years old and started writing songs at the age of nine. He was soon regularly appearing in Chicago theater productions, including in a concert staging of the musical “Gypsy” with Patti Lupone. By age 18, he had written, recorded, and self-released a full-length, eponymous debut album, and, through connections forged during his theater work, he came to the attention of reps from Disney. Days after graduating from high school, Justin hopped on a flight to LA and was soon absorbed into the Disney industrial complex. He opened for artists like Jesse McCartney and Raven-Symoné. He went on tour with High School Musical star Corbin Bleu. His music went into rotation on Radio Disney, and he shot two music videos for songs off of his self-produced album that were played on the Disney channel. (Watch the music video for his song “Sweetest Girl” below.)

But Justin‘s career as a fledgling teen heartthrob was short-lived. He and his manager parted ways, and a promised record deal never materialized. He enrolled at New York University to study acting, before finally realizing two years in that music was his true passion. Through persistence, he was accepted into NYU’s Clive Davis institute of Recorded Music, where he studied songwriting and music production. He took on a couple of internships at production companies while in school and, after graduating, began attending songwriting camps through connections he had made. This culminated in Justin‘s first big break, co-writing Ricky Martin’s 2016 hit single “Vente Pa Ca”. The song would eventually be nominated for a Latin Grammy, and its success signaled that Justin had arrived.

Justin continued working as a songwriter, collaborating with artists like Backstreet Boys and Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren, but it was a song he wrote for Norwegian DJ Kygo that would launch the next chapter of Justin‘s career. That song, 2017’s “Stargazing”, was a massive, international success. (It currently sits at over 400 million streams and its music video has been viewed over 135 million times.) All that, and, at Kygo’s insistence, Justin was the featured vocalist on the track. This kicked Justin‘s solo singing career into high gear. He went on an international, two-year-long tour with Kygo. He released an EP, 2019’s Let it Be Me, and his singles charted all over Europe. He eventually amassed enough of a fanbase to support his own North American solo tour. Justin has been working on material since, and his most recent music video is for the single “Clarity”, released earlier this year. (Watch below.)

Read our interview with Justin Jesso here.

Population: 6.08 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Finland

Musical Heritage: Doo wop, jazz, classical

Notable Homegrown Talent: The Orioles, Philip Glass, and … Sisqó

It may be one of the smaller states in The US, but Maryland is also home to many classical music institutions. The Peabody Institute, a Baltimore music conservatory, is the oldest of its kind in The US. Since its founding in 1857, it has fostered a culture of respect for classical and operatic performing, with the majority of the state’s orchestras and opera houses run by former students. The city of Baltimore has also been a hub of African American music innovation, with jazz and R&B scenes thriving in the city over the years. Doo-wop, a subset of R&B that emphasizes vocal harmonies and simple, heartfelt lyrical content, can be traced back to a handful of African American vocal groups active in the Baltimore music scene in the 1940s and 1950s. Commonly considered to be the first popular R&B vocal group, five-man doo-wop group The Orioles had a number of hit songs in the late ’40s/early ’50s. The group’s first hit single, “It’s Too Soon to Know”, reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1948, inspired cover versions from jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, and was one of the first songs from an African American music act to crossover to the mainstream charts in The US.

“Thong Song” made Sisqó into such a worldwide celebrity that he was immortalized in a series of children’s dolls.

Batimore-native Sisqó knows all about releasing crossover hits … one hit, in particular. The “Thong Song” singer will be representing Maryland at the American Song Contest with his entry “It’s Up”. Born and raised in Baltimore, Sisqó got his start in the music industry as a member of four-man ’90s R&B group Dru Hill. The four men met as teenagers, working at a fudge shop on the harbor. They would sing and practice their harmonies while they worked and waited on customers, and locals and tourists alike began flooding into the shop to hear the singing candy men for themselves. The group were signed to Island Records in 1996, and released two platinum-selling albums (Dru Hill and Enter the Dru) in the span of three years.

The band went on hiatus at the turn of the millennium, and Sisqó seized the opportunity to record and release his debut album as a solo artist, Unleash the Dragon. The first single off of the album, “Got to Get It” performed decently well, but nothing could prepare Sisqó (or the world) for the generation-defining success that would greet the album’s second single … “Thong Song”. The song topped charts all over the world and made Sisqó a household name. His follow-up single, “Incomplete”, was similarly successful, and, though the song has not lingered in the cultural consciousness quite as strongly, it did reach #1 on the Billboard charts. (Watch the music video below.) In the two years that followed, before the release of his second solo album, Return of the Dragon, Sisqó became more than a musician. He became a pop culture icon. Perhaps surprisingly for a man whose biggest claim to fame was a song about women’s asses, Sisqó booked acting roles in young adult properties like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the Cuba Gooding Jr. kids comedy Snow Dogs. He opened for both NSYNC and Backstreet Boys on tour. He even got his own line of dolls.

Sadly, the monumental success of Sisqó’s debut album proved difficult to replicate. His second album sold well, but the individual singles underperformed. He reunited with Dru Hill  for the 2002 album Dru World Order, but that too underperformed, and the band was ultimately dropped from their label. Over the following decade, while Sisqó’s music career came to a bit of a standstill, he fully embraced his celebrity status. He appeared on numerous celebreality shows, a booming subgenre of television in the early ’00s, including Celebrity Big Brother UK and Celebrity Wife Swap. Dru Hill eventually reunited in 2010, releasing the album *ahem* InDRUpendence Day, and embarking on subsequent reunion tours in both 2015 and 2017. Sisqó released his third solo album, Last Dragon, in 2015. That album’s second single, “LIPS”, peaked at #23 on the Adult R&B charts, his first single to chart in The US since 2001. A consummate showman, Sisqó has continued to tour on-and-off over the last decade and has, admirably, never been embarrassed to celebrate the song that made him a household name. In fact, when Norwegian DJ trio JCY remade “Thong Song” in 2017, he once again provided the vocals and appeared in the official music video. (See below.) Sisqó currently lives in Minnesota with his wife and two young kids.

 

Population: 10 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Azerbaijan

Musical Heritage: Motown, techno, rock

Notable Homegrown Talent: Diana Ross & The Supremes, Madonna, Eminem

Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, has a long and storied music history. In the 1950s and 1960s, Motown Records tapped into the city’s R&B and soul scenes, making stars of the likes of The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder. Motown was one of the first African American-owned record labels to achieve crossover success into the largely segregated radio charts of the time, playing a huge role in integrating the nation’s music scene. Pop soul girl group Diana Ross & The Supremes were Motown’s most commercially successful act, releasing 18 studio albums and recording legendary pop hits like “Baby Love”, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, and “Stop! In the Name of Love”. (The group had a somewhat fraught history of internal conflict, eventually inspiring the Broadway musical and subsequent film adaption of “Dreamgirls”.) Over the years, numerous rock legends began their careers performing in Detroit, and the city has often been credited as the birthplace of techno music in the late 1980s. In the early 21st century, Detroit’s hip hop scene became especially important and influential through the success of artists like Eminem.

Ada celebrates her victory at Delton Idol, 2019.

At only 17 years old, Ada Leann is the youngest singer in the competition. Tonight, she will be performing her original composition “Natalie”. A student at Lakeview High School in Battle Creek, Michigan, Ada has been singing behind closed doors since she could speak. She grew up writing poetry, eventually beginning to put those words to music as a preteen. Despite her musical aptitude, Ada suffered from stage fright, uploading videos of herself singing to social media but never having the confidence to perform in front of an audience.

With her family’s encouragement, she entered a local singing competition at the age of 13 … and won. With one victory behind her, Ada threw herself into performance. The very next year, she entered the local, two-day karaoke competition Delton Idol, winning 1st place and a $750 prize. She continued making the local festival circuit, eventually parlaying that local reputation into two auditions for The Voice and a talent development deal with a Nashville-based singer-songwriter named Carter Frodge. One of her first releases, a cover of Dan + Shay’s “10,000 hours” is her most successful single to date, racking up hundreds of thousands of view and streams across social media platforms. (See below.)

Ada‘s father, a manager at a manufacturing plant by day, serves as CEO of Ada’s Music LLC, a company created to further advance her singing career. Over the last three years, Ada has regularly traveled to Nashville to work on and record new material and has released two EPs and handful of singles. Her newest single off of her second EP, for the sake of pete, is the dreamy ballad “January”. (Watch the lyric video below.) Last year, she was named the winner of the Teen category at the Unsigned Only Music Competition, an international talent contest for independent recording artists.

Read our interview with Ada Leann here.

Population: 6.19 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Denmark

Musical Heritage: Urban blues, jazz, country

Notable Homegrown Talent: Chuck Berry, Sheryl Crow, Nelly

Some of the very first stars and innovators of ragtime jazz and urban blues music in The US got their start working primarily in the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City Jazz, a style that developed in the 1920s and 1930s, brought a more freewheeling, improvisational flair to the jazz scene, and the historical St. Louis blues culture has been alive and thriving for a century. (The city’s hockey team is even called the ‘Blues’.) Country artists also have a strong foothold in Missouri, with much of their impact centered around the town of Branson, a tourist destination and longstanding hub of mainstream country music. But perhaps no figure from Missouri has made more of an impact, sonically and culturally, then Chuck Berry. Known as “The Father of Rock ‘n Roll”, the St. Louis native is commonly accepted to be the first major artist to revise and refine R&B sounds into what we now consider the rhythms and attitude of rock music. His songs were massively popular in his heyday, the 1950s and 1960s, and he was one of the first people inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

HALIE, center top, sits opposite MGK in a publicity still for the “Rowdy” video.

Country singer-songwriter HALIE was a last-minute addition to the American Song Contest, replacing the previously announced Brett Seper. She will be performing the song “Better Things”. Born and raised in Thayer, Missouri, HALIE grew up with two musically-inclined older brothers who played in a band. Her brother Michael is especially gifted and worked with music industry professionals from the age of 13. After high school, Michael moved to Nashville, where he quickly signed a publishing deal and began writing hit songs for the likes of Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley, and Blake Shelton. (In a small world moment, Michael performed at events emceed by Utah’s American Song Contest artist, Savannah Keyes, as part of her work at Radio Disney Country.)

HALIE had similar dreams to her brother. She started writing songs at the age of 12 and was active in her high school’s performing arts program. In the spring of 2018, two weeks after graduation, HALIE followed her brother to Nashville and got to work. (Watch the two them perform an acoustic cover of a Lady Antebellum song below.) She quickly signed a modeling contract with a Nashville-based talent agency, even booking a gig in the music video for the song “Rowdy” by Yelawolf feat. Machine Gun Kelly.

In 2019, HALIE submitted a few of her original songs to the NBC reality show Songland. Hosted and judged by veteran songwriters Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally, and American Song Contest juror Ester Dean, Songland ran for two seasons. On each episode, four undiscovered songwriters competed to have one of their compositions performed and recorded by an A-list guest. With the mentorship of the judges, the contestants would tweak their songs to fit the artist in question, and, at the end of the hour, the guests would choose the song they were most interested in making their own. In 2020, on the fourth episode of the second season, HALIE appeared on Songland with “Girls Like Me”, a song she had co-written with her brother. That week’s artist was country music superstar Martina McBride who, upon hearing HALIE‘s empowerment anthem, was moved to tears. (Watch HALIE‘s performance of the song below.) Needless to say, “Girls Like Me” was the winning song, and Martina McBride’s recording of it topped the country charts. The experience opened doors for HALIE, and she has continued to write for herself (and others) ever since. Her most recent single, “Love Too Much” was also co-written by her brother and released earlier this year.

Read our interview with HALIE here.

Population: 2.11 million, roughly equivalent to the population of North Macedonia

Musical Heritage: Neomexicano folk, indie rock, ethno/world

Notable Homegrown Talent: XIT, Sparx, The Shins

Throughout the 1950s, New Mexico was a bit of a popular destination for rock and country musicians, looking to record outside of the Los Angeles area. But the state’s most notable musical tradition is the Neomexicano country Western folk know colloquially as ‘New Mexico music’. A fusion of centuries-old indigenous instrumentation, folk music carried down by the state’s original Spanish and Mexican settlers, with a sprinkling of Latin pop and US country sounds, ‘New Mexico music’ is an ever-evolving genre, constantly interacting with and adapting to music trends of the day. Since 1987, the four Sanchez sisters have been recording and performing both ‘New Mexico music’ and regional Mexican folk songs under the name Sparx. The sisters come from a family of influential New Mexican musicians and have been popular primarily in Mexico and countries all over Latin America.

Khalisol performs as part of Flatline Rebelz, circa 2015.

Rapper and New Mexico-native Khalisol will be representing the state with his song “Drop”. Born and raised in Albuquerque, the performing bug bit Zach Chicoine around 2009, when the then-13 year old rapped at a school talent show. His love for the art only increased over time. In high school, he began posting freestyles on a YouTube channel under the nickname ‘Gaws Da Giant’ and, by 2014, he and his classmate known as ‘Deezee’ formed an underground hip hop duo known as Flatline Rebelz. The pair recorded a mix tape, inspired by the 1979 cult film The Warriors, and handed out copies of it in the school hallway.

After graduating from high school, Khalisol continued performing local gigs and forging a community of like-minded hip hop artists. In 2016, he began releasing music through the Albuquerque-based hip hop label Oh Lawd, including his first solo EP White Room. (Watch the official music video for the EP’s title track below.) Khalisol has continued to record and perform in Albuquerque over the years, and he is outspoken in his belief that New Mexico’s hip hop scene has been unfairly overlooked. He has released two more EPs and a handful of singles, and he sometimes decamps to Los Angeles to work on new music.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Khalisol‘s wife gave birth to twins, and his social media is full of photos of him enjoying family life. Kids can be expensive, so luckily he has been making decent money as a songwriter … in a wholly unexpected way. Since 2019, he has been a co-writer on a handful of songs for some of the biggest names in K-pop, including the wildly popular super group SuperM. “Jopping”, the lead single off SuperM’s eponymous debut album, lists Khalisol as a co-writer and currently has over 85 million streams on Spotify. (The song’s official music video has over 114 million views and can be viewed below.) Not bad for a guy who began his music career handing out mixtapes in the school cafeteria.

 

Population: 10.81 million, roughly equivalent to the population of Czech Republic

Musical Heritage: Blues, folk, indie rock

Notable Homegrown Talent: Nina Simone, James Taylor, Ben Folds

North Carolina has a long North American folk tradition, typified by the use of acoustic fiddling and plucked string instruments like the banjo or guitar. As such, country and bluegrass music have been especially popular in the state over the last century. Several different strands of blues music have flourished in North Carolina over the years, including the regionally-specific Piedmont blues, a sound that is produced through a unique finger-picking method.  In addition, college towns in North Carolina have served as breeding grounds for indie and alternative rock musicians. In the early 1990s, singer-songwriter Ben Folds got his start in and around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, performing and releasing music with the band The Ben Folds Five. Since then, he has branched out into a solo career, releasing three albums and earning a large and devoted cult following. Among other accomplishments, he has toured the world, served as one of the judgs on the NBC a cappella competition show The Sing Off, and even released a memoir in 2019.

Top: John Morgan (third from left), age 8, and Mountain Faith; Bottom: John (left), age 14, and Mountain Faith.

Lifelong bluegrass musician John Morgan will be representing North Carolina at the American Song Contest with the song “Right in the Middle”. Born in 1995 in the small town of Sylva, John began playing guitar at the age of 7 and, soon after, joined his uncle and cousins in the touring bluegrass gospel band Mountain Faith.

With John on guitar, Mountain Faith spent 10 years touring the gospel and bluegrass circuits, opening for some of the genres’ biggest names. In the years John was a member, roughly 2002 to 2014, Mountain Faith released three albums independently and two with small record labels. The band was frequently booked to perform at Dollywood, the Tennessee amusement parked co-owned by music legend Dolly Parton, and, all the while, the young members of Mountain Faith were growing in skill and confidence. Toward the end of his tenure with the band, John was even writing some of the songs.  (Watch a live performance of Mountain Faith, taken when John was around 16 years old, below.)

John took a break from music around the age of 20, but, with the encouragement of some friends who had already relocated to Nashville, John sold off all his possessions (including 10 acres of land) and relocated to the country music capital in 2018. He paid the bills working retail at Lucky Brand Jeans, until, one day, he struck up a conversation with a customer who just happened to be a local singer-songwriter with a lot of connections. John sent him some demos, and a partnership was born. In the early days of the pandemic, the two co-wrote a couple songs over Zoom with Kurt Allison and Tully Kennedy, two lyricists and longtime members of country singer Jason Aldean’s touring band. John recorded demos of the songs, and, after Jason Aldean heard the tracks, he signed John to a publishing and record deal. Since then, John has co-written a number of songs for the country music superstar, including a duet with Carrie Underwood that went to the top of the country music charts. While maintaining a non-stop touring schedule with Jason Aldean over the last year, John managed to release his debut single, “Coldest Beer in Town”. (Watch his acoustic performance of the song below.) Still based out of Nashville, John and his wife, a vintage clothing reseller, recently welcomed a baby girl.

 

Population: 623k, roughly equivalent to the population of Montenegro

Musical Heritage: Jam band, classical, folk

Notable Homegrown Talent: The von Trapp Family Singers, Phish, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Though it is one of the smaller states in The US, Vermont’s music scene has a personality all its own. Every year, Vermont hosts bluegrass and classical music festivals, and The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is the oldest state-funded institution of its kind in the country. Some of the state’s most popular acts have been loose, improvisational jam bands, but far and away its most infamous music stars have been The von Trapp Family Singers. The sizable troupe, headed by a former Austro-Hungarian naval officer, settled in Vermont after fleeing Austria during World War 2, eventually touring the nation performing European folk music to enraptured audiences. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. The true story of the The von Trapps would eventually inspire the Broadway musical “The Sound of Music” and its subsequent movie adaptation.

Josh performing as Freddie Mercury at the 2016 ‘Select Sessions’ benefit.

Also raised in a musical family, albeit one with less yodeling, is eccentric jam band journeyman Josh Panda, who will be representing Vermont with the song “Rollercoaster”. Raised in a small farm town in North Carolina, much of Josh‘s early life revolved around the church. His mother toured the region performing gospel music, and Josh sang for the congregation starting at the age of three. After graduating from high school, Josh moved to the big city and attempted to pursue a music career … he just wasn’t sure which kind he wanted. He formed a rock band, performed as part of a folk music trio, and even joined a hip hop group. But it was a spur of the moment trip to Burlington, Vermont, and a chance meeting at a gig in Charlotte, North Carolina, that would get his life and career on track.

While living in Brooklyn, New York, for a short time, Josh took a train into Vermont to perform a gig at a restaurant and live performance venue called Nectar’s. He was immediately charmed and inspired by the city and found himself contemplating a move. Around that same time, at a gig in North Carolina, he met a woman named Ruth Hill. Ruth, the daughter of a former CEO of the Vermont Teddy Bear Co., thought she could help give direction to his career, and soon the pair had relocated to Vermont, established a production company, and booked him a residency at Nectar’s. Oh, and they got married. Josh has become a local legend over the past decade. He landed a weekly residency at a venue called Skinny Pancake that lasted six years. He performed at local benefit concerts as part of the ‘Select Sessions’ series, suiting up in his best Elton John and Freddie Mercury drag to sing their greatest hits. He released four albums, including a live concert recording taken in Switzerland during a leg of a 2012 European tour. And he collaborated with other local talent on projects like British Isles, a steampunk pop rock trio that released the song “Hold Your Horses” in 2018. (Watch the music video below.) All the while, Josh and his wife have raised a growing family, giving birth to two sons.

It’s not unusual to see Josh busking on the streets of Burlington. He isn’t doing it because he has to. He busks because he wants to. In fact, his 2010 tour in support of his eponymous second album was built around busking, with time allotted for him to perform on the streets of all the cities he was booked to appear in, organically growing a fanbase on a grassroots level. Josh‘s four octave vocal range and his experience in lots of different music genres, combined with his ability to connect to an audience of any size, have made him very adaptable. At an outdoor show last year, during a performance of the song “Buttermilk Hollar” off his first album, an electrical issue caused a power outage. Rather than wait for the issue to be fixed, Josh hopped down into the crowd and kept the party going, creating a community moment out of an awkward technical hiccup. (See that performance below.) Hopefully he can form a similar connection to his audience from the American Song Contest stage.

 

Population: 55k, roughly equivalent to the population of Monaco

Musical Heritage: Indigenous, gospel, hip hop

Notable Homegrown Talent: Napoleon Andrew Tuiteleleapaga, Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., The Katinas

The music culture of the Samoan islands maintains a connection with the percussion-based sound that has been popular with the islands’ indigenous population for thousands of years. Post-World War 2, mainstream American music became popular on the Samoan isles, eventually including gospel songs from The US’ large Christian music industry.  The influence of imported music from The US has also trickled down into a developing hip hop community. Though based out of California, the seven brothers who make up hip hop metal band Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E.’s original line up are descendants of immigrants from American Samoa, and their sound reflects a fusion between mainstream American rap rhythms and the traditional indigenous sounds brought over by their family’s elders.

Tenelle and Common Kings, her frequent collaborators.

Also based out of California is R&B hit maker Tenelle. She will be representing her family’s Samoan heritage at the American Song Contest, performing the song “Full Circle”. Born just outside of Los Angeles to a family of Samoan descent, Tenelle was an avid softball player as a kid and only came to music around the age of 12. She began taking vocal lessons from Tim Carter, a coach who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Willow Smith, and paid her dues performing at church. After graduating high school in 2016, she joined her uncles’ band, Chord Brown, touring up and down the California coast.

Once Chord Brown dissolved, Tenelle struck out on her own. She split her time between Los Angeles, where she was writing new material, and Hawaii, where she gigged as a backing singer/featured vocalist for a handful of regionally popular reggae groups. (She has remained connected to one band, Grammy-nominated foursome Common Kings, and they have continued to be some of her biggest supporters and most frequent collaborators.) In 2013, she made her debut as a solo recording artist, releasing the songs “Bulletproof” and “Flava”, the latter co-written by Meghan Trainor. (See music video below.) “Flava” eventually shot to #1 on the iTunes singles chart and currently has nearly three million streams on Spotify. The song’s popularity increased Tenelle‘s profile internationally, particularly in the Pacific Island region where reggae is a popular sound.

In the nine years since she first burst onto the scene, Tenelle has been splitting her time between Los Angeles and Hawaii and touring all over the Pacific Island region and parts of Asia. She has collaborated with other well-known reggae artists like Fiji and Spawnbreezie, the latter on the hit 2020 single”Island King”. (Watch the music video below.) Tenelle‘s debut album, For the Lovers, went #1 on the iTunes reggae chart in 2017, and she has released two more albums since. Her third album, 2021’s Anything is Possible, was recorded in collaboration with Pinoy DJ RYN. All that, and she owns and operates her own clothing line, 10×10.

 

Population: 172k, roughly equivalent to the population of Andorra

Musical Heritage: Chamorro, electronic, roots/reggae

Notable Homegrown Talent: Flora Baza Quan, For Peace, Pia Mia

Since the 1990s, electronic music has had a huge presence on the tiny island of Guam, with raves and EDM dance parties popping up one or two times per week. Guam also plays host to the annual Electric Island Festival, a major driver of tourism for a territory that’s economy is largely built on hosting visitors from all over the world. But by far Guam’s most popular music styles come from the island’s indigenous Chamorro population. Making use of traditional instruments and an emphasis on storytelling, Chamorro music is a community building art form, with a call and response interaction with a live audience one of its biggest tenets. Known as “The Queen of Chamorro Music”, former beauty queen and social activist Flora Baza Quan has been an ambassador for Chamorro music around the world since her career began in the early 1970s.

Jason (second from right) and Mighty Yellow Massive, 2013.

Alternative reggae artist Jason J. will be bringing the roots and reggae sounds of Guam to the contest with his entry “Midnight”. Born and raised in Yona, Guam, Jason grew up surrounded by the sounds of island music and, by high school, was writing songs with a friend named Tim Balajadia. The two began performing lunch time shows and burning CDs to share with anyone who would listen. As a senior in high school, his original song “Forever” even received some local radio play. (See Jason and Tim perform that song live on a radio broadcast below.)

Son of a captain in the Marine Corps, Jason was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. In high school, he spent his summers working on an ocean container ship, learning about the family business. He was accepted to a Maritime academy in California for college, but, by then, he knew music was his future. After a few years of gigging around his local scene, Jason and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 2011. He graduated from a nine-month independent artist program at a Hollywood music institute and co-founded a reggae band called Mighty Massive Mellow that toured all over California and the Pacific Island region.

In 2017, Jason struck out on his own, releasing his debut EP Luminosity. The EP made the year-end chart of Top 10 reggae albums, and singles like “Juices” and “Island Fever” racked up hundreds of thousands of streams. (Watch an acoustic performance of the latter below.) Currently based in Glendale, California, Jason has continued touring in both The US and Guam and even released a second EP titled No Refuge in 2019. He and his wife have two children, including a daughter with special needs, and he spends all his time outside of music creating memories with his family.

And, with that, we bring the final American Song Contest primer to a close. Hopefully this context can give you a better understanding of these 11 acts and the musical traditions of the states they are representing. The final qualifying round airs tonight at 8/7c  (1 AM Central European Time for all you insomniacs) on NBC, with performances uploaded to NBC’s YouTube channel shortly thereafter.

Can’t wait that long to hear this week’s songs? Listen to the Spotify playlist above!

Voting is done in one or all of these three ways: on NBC.com/on the NBC app/on TikTok. If you’re a visual learner, week one competitors Yam Haus provided a helpful explanation in a video that can be found here.

Who are #YOU rooting  for? Do #YOU resent Ada Leann for achieving all of this before even graduating high school? I’m not saying I do … but, OK, maybe I do. Listen. This isn’t about me! Sound off in the comments below, in our forum, or on social media @ESCUnited.

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